New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings: 2017 NFC Divisional Round Pick

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

These two teams met way back in week 1, with Minnesota winning 29-19 at home, but so much has changed since then. At the time, that game was seen as a breakout game for both Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford (346 passing yards, 3 TDs) and Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook (137 yards from scrimmage) and yet another example of the Saints struggling defensively, as they had for years. Bradford and Cook combined to play just 4 games the rest of the way due to knee injuries, while the Saints’ defense finished in the middle of the pack statistically this season thanks to breakout performances by rookie defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who both got better as the season went on.

The Vikings’ offense obviously managed pretty well without Bradford and Cook, but they too finished middle of the pack, despite looking like potentially a top offense back in week 1. The Vikings would go on to win 13 games with Case Keenum under center and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray as their backs, but their defense was the primary reason they were winning games, as they finished 2nd in first down rate allowed, only behind the Jaguars.

On top of that, the Saints’ leading rusher week 1 was Adrian Peterson with 18 rushing yards and he is no longer on the team, getting traded to the Cardinals back in week 6, which cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (who combined for just 35 rushing yards on 13 carries back in week 1) to become the first running back duo ever to both compile 1,500 yards from scrimmage. After losing their first 2 games of the season to teams that would finish 13-3 (Minnesota and New England), the Saints ripped off 8 straight wins and finished as 11-5 champions of the NFC South, despite having the toughest schedule in the league by opponents’ record.

After all that’s changed with these teams, these two teams are the best in the NFC and very evenly matched on paper. The Vikings have a dominant defense and a capable offense, while the Saints have a dominant offense and a capable defense. It’s a shame that these two teams had to meet before the NFC Championship and I think the winner of this game will be playing in the Super Bowl in 3 weeks. I said last week that I think the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC and I stand by that, but the Vikings are very close.

I give the edge to the Saints because of experience. Case Keenum is starting his first ever playoff game and quarterbacks do not have a good track record in their first playoff start, while the Saints are easily the most experienced team in the NFC, with the duo of Drew Brees and Sean Payton together for 11 playoff games since they united in 2006. The Vikings obviously have homefield advantage, which could end up being the deciding factor in this game, but the Saints have a good chance to cover this 4-point spread even if they can’t quite pull the upset, as about 30% of games are decided by 4 points. The money line is also worth a bet because this game is close to a toss up.

New Orleans Saints 24 Minnesota Vikings 23 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4

Confidence: High

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Saints are my pick to come out of the NFC. With the Eagles losing Carson Wentz for the season, the Saints are now the most complete team in the NFC, with the Rams and Vikings following close behind. I give the edge to the Saints because quarterback Drew Brees is better and more experienced than either Jared Goff or Case Keenum. The Saints also get to open their post-season at home against a Carolina team that they’ve beaten twice so far this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Saints are definitely going to win a 3rd time, as teams are just 4-2 in the post-season against a team they defeated twice in the regular season, but the Saints have had a significant edge over the Panthers in their first 2 matchups, winning both by double digits.

The Panthers also finished the season significantly behind the Saints in point differential and first down rate differential. The Saints had a point differential of +122 and a first down rate differential of +3.73%, while the Panthers were +36 and +1.85% in those two metrics. Both teams finished at 11-5, but the Panthers got to 11-5 on the strength of a 8-1 record in games decided by 8 points or less, so they easily could have finished 9-7 and out of the post-season if a few things had gone differently. Their point differential is 3rd worst among playoff teams and worse than two non-playoff qualifiers, the Chargers and the Ravens. We aren’t getting enough line value with the Saints to bet on them this week, but they should be the right pick for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 27 Carolina Panthers 19

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6.5

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)

The Buccaneers had high hopes coming into this season, with former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston going into his 3rd season in the league and several additions coming in through free agency, but they have had a very disappointing season and sit at 4-11 going into the final week of the season. Injuries have been a big problem for this team, as they’ve had among the most games lost to injury of any team in the league this season, but, despite injuries, they have been better than their record suggests.

Seven of their 11 losses have come by 7 points or fewer, including 4 losses by 3 points or fewer. Their -54 point differential is 21st in the NFL and more indicative of a team that should have about 6 or 7 wins, despite the fact that they’ve struggled to produce big plays this season (5 plays of 40+ yards). Big plays like that tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so I don’t hold that against them much. In terms of first down rate differential, they enter this game 12th at +0.94% and they have 15 more first downs than they’ve allowed on the season.

The amount of games they’ve played that have been decided by a touchdown or less is especially relevant, considering they are 7-point home underdogs this week against the Saints. The Buccaneers were blown out in New Orleans earlier this year, losing 30-10 in one of their few losses by more than a touchdown, but this one is in Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers did not have a healthy Jameis Winston in that one. Winston now seems to be over his early season shoulder trouble and has been playing his best football of the season in recent weeks.

In fact, since that loss in New Orleans, the Buccaneers have just one loss by more than a touchdown in 7 games and that came in Atlanta by 14 in a game in which they actually won the first down rate battle, but couldn’t generate any big plays. They’ve come within a field goal of beating both the Falcons and Panthers in the past two weeks and should be able to keep it close with the Saints this week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -3.5, so we’re getting good line value with the hosts. The Buccaneers are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +7

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (9-5) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)

This is one of the tougher games of the week for me. We are getting some line value with the Falcons, as I have this line calculated at New Orleans -4 rather than New Orleans -5.5. However, that’s not a substantial amount of line value, given how few games are actually decided by 4-5 points (about 9%). On top of that, the Saints are in a better spot. While the Falcons have another tough game on deck against the Panthers that will have major playoff implications for both teams, the Saints only have a trip to Tampa Bay to face the 4-10 Buccaneers on deck.

It’s not that the Falcons won’t be focused for this key divisional game, but they could have a little bit of split focus this week with another tough game on deck, whereas the Saints can be completely focused for this game. Teams are 45-25 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 7+ and the early line has the Saints at -8.5 in Tampa Bay next week. At -5.5, I am picking the Saints, but I would probably change this pick to Atlanta at 6. That’s how close this one is for me.

New Orleans Saints 30 Atlanta Falcons 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: None

New York Jets at New Orleans Saints: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

New York Jets (5-8) at New Orleans Saints (9-4)

The Jets had a brutal loss in Denver last week. Not only did they lose 23-0 to a team that hadn’t won in over 2 months (managing just 6 first downs on 48 plays in the process), but they also lost quarterback Josh McCown for the season with a broken hand. As a result, this line shifted from New Orleans -10.5 to -16. I think that’s fair. McCown was not playing at a Pro-Bowl level or anything, but he was having one of the best seasons of his career and he was the biggest reason why the Jets, despite not having a ton of talent, had been surprising teams and getting a few wins. Backup Bryce Petty, meanwhile, looked like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in limited starting experience down the stretch last season. He’s a steep downgrade.

The Jets have also had very little success on the road this season, as most of their surprise success has come at home this season. On the road, they are just 1-5 ATS, with their 1 cover coming in a 3-point win as 2-point favorites in Cleveland, in a game in which the Browns could have easily won had they not blown numerous red zone opportunities. The Jets have a -10.33 scoring differential on the road this season, even with McCown healthy, and the Saints are easily the toughest team they’ve faced so far on the road this season. Prior to this week, their previous road games came in Buffalo, Oakland, Cleveland, Miami, Tampa Bay, and Denver.

It does help the Jets that this is their 2nd of two road games, as road underdogs are 121-80 ATS in their second of two road games off of a road loss. That’s because teams typically do better in their second of two road games, as opposed to a single road game sandwiched between two home games, but lines don’t really adjust for that. Teams are 258-276 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.90 points per game, as opposed to 379-525 straight up in a road game that’s sandwiched between two home games, getting outscored by an average of 2.95 points per game, a difference of about 2 points.

However, the Jets are also in a terrible spot because they have another tough game on deck, with the Chargers coming to town next week.  It’s very tough for teams to keep it close against superior teams when they have another tough game on deck. Teams are 33-55 ATS as underdogs of 7+ before being underdogs of 7+ since 2012, including 7-18 ATS before being home underdogs of 7+, which the Jets likely will be next week (+10.5 on the early line). This should be a blowout, but this line is too high for me to bet confidently on the Saints.

New Orleans Saints 27 New York Jets 10

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -16

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-3) at Atlanta Falcons (7-5)

Two weeks ago, I bet on the Falcons -9.5 at home against the Buccaneers in an eventual 14-point win. My argument was that, even though they had been underwhelming at times this season, the Falcons still were healthy and had a top-5 team on paper, returning essentially the entire core of the team that made the Super Bowl in February. On top of that, they’ve played a tough schedule and have played relatively well against playoff caliber teams. They have home wins over the Cowboys and the Aaron Rodgers led Packers and a road win at night in Seattle, the same circumstances in which the Eagles just lost. The Falcons have lost in Carolina and New England, but they nearly won in Carolina and their 16-point loss in New England was closer than the final score. Even in last week’s home loss to the Vikings, they kept it close in a 14-9 loss, despite tough circumstances.

Those tough circumstances are the reason I did not bet them last week, as the Falcons were missing top cornerback Desmond Trufant and had to play again in 4 days in this game on Thursday Night Football. The Falcons lost left guard Andy Levitre with injury last week and he’s been having a solid season, but they get Trufant back, which is more important. I still think they are a smart bet moving forward, especially since this line has shifted from Atlanta -2.5 to New Orleans -1.5 in the last week. That’s relatively insignificant line movement in between the field goals, but I still have this line calculated at -3, as I have these two teams about even.

The Saints had some tough circumstances last week too, with top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, left tackle Terron Armstead, and safety Marcus Williams all sitting that game out with minor injuries to prepare for this Thursday Night game. Despite that, they were able to beat the Panthers 31-21, but that game was closer than the final score, as the Panthers botched a punt in their own territory and then extended a New Orleans drive with a personal foul penalty 3 plays later. Had that not happened, the Panthers might have been able to kick a field goal early in the 4th quarter, rather than going for it on 4th and 6 down 14. The Saints only ended up winning the first down rate battle by +0.09%, despite the 10 point win. I think the Falcons are a slight step up in class from the Panthers anyway, especially in Atlanta. The Falcons are worth a bet both against the spread and on the money line.

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting lines I lock in early in the week during my Thursday Night writeups this season, so readers can lock them in before they move. These are not all my picks for the week, just picks where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction (usually underdogs). The rest of the writeups will continue to be posted over the weekend as normal.

OAK +4 @ KC

SF +3 @ HOU

CAR +3 vs. MIN

CLE +3.5 vs. GB (I’d also take +3)

JAX -2.5 vs. SEA

Atlanta Falcons 27 New Orleans Saints 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (8-3) at New Orleans Saints (8-3)

The Saints had their 8-game winning streak snapped last week in Los Angeles. The Rams are a tough opponent and the Saints were missing their top-2 cornerbacks, Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, so it wasn’t a huge shock, especially since the Rams were home favorites. The Saints return home this week, but they have another tough matchup with the Panthers coming to town. They also still have injury issues. While Crawley is expected to return, the Saints will be missing talented rookie safety Marcus Williams and pass catching tight end Coby Fleener, while Lattimore and left tackle Terron Armstead are questionable after being limited in practice all week this week.

Making matters worse, the Saints have to turn around and play an even tougher game in Atlanta on 4 days rest on Thursday Night Football next week. That might mean the Saints hold out either Lattimore and/or Armstead with the intention of them being 100% for the Atlanta game, but even if both play the Saints are still in a terrible spot with that game on deck. Favorites are 64-95 ATS since 2008 before Thursday Night Football and divisional home favorites are just 24-62 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs. Both of those trends are very much in play here.

The Panthers have a tough game next week too, as they face the Vikings, but at least that game is at home in Carolina and on normal rest. The Panthers are favored by 3 in that one on the early line, while the Saints are 3 point underdogs in Atlanta. Underdogs are 67-41 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. That trend is not quite as relevant as the two aforementioned trends because Carolina’s next upcoming game isn’t easy, but there’s no denying that the Panthers enter this game in a much better situation schedule wise.

The Saints beat the Panthers 34-13 in Carolina back in week 3, but that was when Cam Newton was still working his way back from off-season shoulder surgery. The Panthers also didn’t have either center Ryan Kalil or tight end Greg Olsen in that one and both could play this week, though they might not be 100%. Teams tend to avenge on divisional home upsets anyway, as divisional road underdogs are 66-37 ATS since 2002 in regular season, same season revenge games against a team that previously pulled an upset against them. These two teams aren’t far off in talent, so it makes sense that the Panthers would at least come close to evening the season series this week, especially since the Saints could overlook them a little bit, given that they’ve already beaten them and that they have another big game in 4 days.

All of that being said, I wish we were getting a better line than Carolina +5. That’s about what I have this one calculated at, so we aren’t getting any real line value with the Panthers. The Saints are banged up, but they are the better team, as they rank 3rd in first down rate, while Carolina ranks 11th. The Saints’ 8 victories have all come by more than a touchdown, while just 3 of Carolina’s have. The Panthers still worth a bet because of the terrible spot the Saints are in and they should be able to keep this within a field goal or so, but this is just a medium confidence pick. I will upgrade this to a high confidence pick if the line shoots up to 6 before game time or if either Lattimore or Armstead are ruled out.

New Orleans Saints 23 Carolina Panthers 20

Pick against the spread: Carolina +5

Confidence: Medium